Thanks for the Poinsettias
December 24, 2002
This editorial appeared in today’s Los Angeles Times:
Years ago when Johnny Carson hosted “The Tonight Show,” around the holidays the entire stage overflowed with proud poinsettias whose reds and greens exploded on color TV. Do you remember that? We don’t either. But that’s among the oft-told stories surrounding this unusual seasonal flower, America’s best-selling potted plant and a living synonym for the holidays. But the flower’s ubiquity and enduring popularity are due in large part to the gardening and marketing skills of a little-known Californian, Paul Ecke Jr.
By clever planting, cutting, hybridizing, forcing, twisting, positioning and selling, Ecke and his father turned this once pedestrian roadside Mexican plant into a red-and-green symbol of joy, an American holiday staple. They even tortured some plants with X-rays to produce double and triple blooms and exotic hues like purple and orange.
Ecke asked around. He learned that men have two tendencies when visiting florists: One, they’re feeling guilty about something and, two, they buy cut flowers. Women, on the other hand, prefer potted plants any time; in fact, women buy eight of 10 potted plants year-round. Poinsettias are potted plants. A year-round business is better than a seasonal one; ask cranberry growers. So Ecke built on his father’s homespun horticultural skills to breed poinsettias that last months longer, which was savvy, not subversive. Not only did months of life lengthen the sales season, they could produce bumper crops of props for colorful photo layouts in women’s magazines, which prepare their year-end holiday issues months before.
Come Thanksgiving, photos of gorgeously lush, appropriately red-and-green potted plants started appearing in millions of homes far from the Eckes’ Encinitas ranch. Eckes also offered regiments of plants as free TV scenery.
All of this prompted millions of buyers to want poinsettias and thousands of florists to seek them from the main U.S. supplier, which is, yep, the Eckes’ operation. If you were into plant genealogy, you could trace about 80 percent of the 65 million poinsettia plants grown annually to Eckes’ place. The plant wasn’t native to California. The Aztecs used it as red dye and a fever-reducer. They called it cuetlaxochitle, which doesn’t exactly sing in English. In the 1820s along came Joel Poinsett (note that last name), America’s first ambassador to Mexico and a botanist. He took some cuetlaxochitle back to South Carolina for propagation – and renaming. The rest is history. So, sadly, is Paul Ecke Jr. He died of cancer at 76 last May, when poinsettias once didn’t prosper.
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This is the first holiday season in 80 years without a Paul Ecke Sr. or Jr. peddling poinsettias. But judging by the nation’s bountiful holiday decorations this week, the flower of their imaginations and agricultural acumen blooms on.